The Doggy Bag Dilemma

by Susan Peters

Who doesn’t love leftovers? I’m always mystified when, at the end of a meal of many shared dishes in a restaurant, my friends lean back in their chairs. “No, you take what’s left. I don’t like leftovers.”

I love leftovers, and will happily carry home the extra food to eat as the next day’s lunch or dinner. It saves me the trouble of preparing another meal, and usually provides something more exciting than I would cook myself. Knowing I’ll take leftovers home also takes pressure off ordering: how many small dishes do we need for three people? Basically, I don’t like wasting food.

Nevertheless, I think there can be a curious public shame to asking a restaurant to box up your leftovers. The taboo is most acute on an occasion when the food is intended to be secondary to the conversation: when you go for lunch with a prospective client, or dinner with the cute guy you’re trying impress. The actual food is unimportant — sawdust, filet mignon — because you’re too busy listening to the precious words of your future employer. Dear new contact: you are so important, I will give up a chance to take home the extra pasta. My greedy self wrestles with my slightly-more-socially-aware self, and then leaves the food on the table, with a last lingering look.

Asking for a doggy bag at fancy restaurants can be embarrassing, too. It has been reported that some top restaurants will refuse to give over the leftovers to diners, because they argue the artistry of a glass dome of smoke, infusing flavor to a trout filet, cannot be replicated in a toaster oven. True. Sometimes in a nice-ish restaurant I intentionally order pizza, because: A. I love pizza; B. Carrying home leftover pizza seems more socially acceptable than carrying home half a steak, some mashed potatoes, and two stalks of roasted asparagus.

The opposite end of the price spectrum poses another problem: carrying home cheap starches feels like a waste of the cardboard that the food comes in. I once took home nachos from a restaurant. Reheated in the oven for lunch the next day, they were crisp and gooey with melted cheese, but I felt vaguely ashamed as I ate them, aware my love of leftovers had gone too far. I made a rule for myself: take home no leftover rice, French fries, or pasta, unless it’s part of a larger meal.

On the practical side, some foods package well to go home without mess, but a doggy bag of oily sauces has the potential to slosh and spill and leave a turmeric-colored stain. Some people have a booked schedule of lunches and dinners, and their freezer is already jam-packed: they have no room for unscheduled leftovers. Rare foods improve by sitting in the fridge a second day: soups and stews can blend their flavors more smoothly with additional time. On the other hand, leftover salad can quickly start to ferment.

Still, I think the heart of the problem is the embarrassment of carrying containers of food out and about, akin to swinging your plastic Star Wars lunchbox to elementary school, instead of a cocktail bar. For this reason, when I headed from a Korean restaurant to the pub last month, I decided to leave behind the leftovers, instead of taking a Styrofoam container to perch by the brass rail. But why would it embarrass me to be seen with a box of leftovers? Does carrying a doggy bag make me look gluttonous? Does it make me look poor? At the same time, it’s a social faux pas to blatantly waste food in a restaurant, aware as we are that others in our country are hungry, at least some of the time.

Who are the people who don’t like leftovers? Maybe they have never felt hungry. Or maybe they have, and they despise the reheating of food because of this: “As God is my witness, I’ll never eat leftovers again.” Maybe the act of eating leftovers strikes them as a symbol of poverty. To them, three minutes in the microwave is as desperate as sewing a dress out of curtains. They clutch their 24-karat gold fridge lovingly and whisper, “Let’s just order out tonight.”

Last night I went for dinner with friends. At the end, I packaged the leftovers and slid the Styrofoam containers across the table — one box for each woman. My editor had suggested that maybe my friends were professing a dislike of leftovers out of politeness. Perhaps I was misreading the social cues, and depriving others of their fair share. “Are you testing us?” One friend laughed, when I explained. “Taking home a doggy bag is embarrassing because it makes you look cheap.”

Reheated for breakfast this morning, the noodles had lost their crisp, fresh-cut texture, but the chili-oil sauce was still pungent.

At the very least, people who don’t eat leftovers are good people to go out with for a large shared dinner. The leftovers: mine, all mine.

Susan Peters is an editor and writer in Winnipeg, Canada. She has written for the Globe and Mail, Macleans, and Canadian Geographic. Follow her at @susan_peters.

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